Meaning is what children’s books should convey — not agendas

Consider this fable that I just made up.

There was a family that lived in a cave and the mother and father loved and watched out for their children. The mother worked with each of her children and showed them how to fashion a ring of gold (gold was plentiful around these caves—work with me here, okay?) and when the children grew and left the cave she gave this ring to each of them to cherish—and to pass on. These children, remembering the love that they experienced in the cave, took the rings and fashioned more with their own children and when their children left they gave the rings to their children. And so on. But as you might expect, one of the children lost theirs and had no ring to pass on. So they didn’t bother any more. Then another. So that, in time, the families who knew the joy of sharing this beautiful experience together grew fewer in number, though the resources were still abundant all around them. It was a dark and stormy day.

Image Source: Enoch Pratt Free Library web site, Baltimore, MD.

I won’t be publishing this anytime soon, for obvious reasons. But here’s the point: the rings of gold are what the parents give their children when they read with them, and encourage them to read.

I still remember the thrill of laying in bed reading a book that my mother bought for me. Of course, she had spent many nights reading to me before I was able to read for myself. Those memories aren’t as crystal clear as are the ones where I read to my own children and grandchildren, and I can tell you how much it meant to be able to have them experience laughter, sadness, and love—and to talk about it with them afterward.

For laughs, I will never forget the series of books by Harry Allard about the Stupid family, Stanley Q. Stupid, Mrs. Stupid, Buster, Petunia, and their dog named Kitty. These include The Stupids Step Out (1977), The Stupids Have a Ball (1984), and The Stupids Die (1985). In one book, I remember how the family passed in front of a mirror and Stanley scolded the kids for staring “at those people.” Oh, and did I mention that the dog, Kitty, drives the family car?

Naturally, some people find these books offensive, so you don’t hear much about them any more.  Politics and political correctness have smeared themselves all over our children’s reading materials leaving a sticky brown bovine film. Read some of the comments abut the Stupids on Amazon and you will see what I mean. Like this one:

My preschooler loves this book, but she doesn’t know the actual title. We replace ‘stupid’ with ‘silly’. It seems more appropriate that way.

Or this one:

My 7 year old recently brought this book home from his school library. I found it very offensive, because I think it teaches children that it’s funny to call others “stupid”. I cannot think of a circumstance in which it is appropriate for a child or an adult to use this word towards another person. I was so upset that I wrote a note to the school librarian.

We all have our opinions, and I truly respect that. But the way I see it, and as Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.” I remember laughing out loud with my daughter at Allard’s books and the memories will go with me to the grave.  If you want to laugh with your kids or grandkids, check these out. They’re just silly. That’s all they’re meant to be.

For getting kids to understand how love works, there is no better book than The Giving Tree (40th Anniversary edition 2004, HarperCollins), by Shel Silverstein. This has been around since 1964, and the concept is simple. A tree loves a little boy, and the little boy takes all the tree has to give, even finally cutting the tree down to build a house. But when the boy is an old man, all he wants is a place to rest. The tree offers its stump. It continues to give. Children respond to this story, feeling sad for the tree, but I believe this story plants a seed in their minds about what true love is.

Oh, but even Silverstein is criticized. Why? Because the tree is abused. Apparently, the conceptual distinction between giving something to someone and having something taken from you forcibly escapes some people. Perhaps they should have been read to as kids.

Allard’s and Silverstein’s books are children’s classics (or, in Allard’s case, guilty pleasures), but don’t forget the other classics. We have a children’s version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at home, and one of our grandchildren loves to have this read to him when he comes to spend the night. Afterwards, he and his Nanny talk about it, and he asks questions like, “Why do people treat Jim (the runaway slave) like that?” Questions like that need to be asked by adults, and books like Huckleberry Finn can start that process when they are young.

Of course, as has been well publicized on more than one occasion in recent decades, the political correctness crowd has been after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a long time because it uses the “n-word.” Let’s see: a boy who lives in the 1840s in Missouri, a slave state, narrates it and he uses the “n-word?” How odd. But the book is perhaps one of the finest examples of how a human being can approach others with an appreciation for the humanity underlying our diversity that has ever been written. Yeah. That’s in there too. Talk about missing the forest for the tree.

The upshot of this is that parents’ involvement in our children’s education is critical to a child’s success in life. If we think we can just skate by and let the schools do it, then we are just . . . well, stupid. For one thing, all the kids will be reading are books that pass the “sniff test” of the political correctness crowd, and they may get books with agendas instead of books that have meaning. You don’t have to be educated, or even that bright, to pick up a book and read to your child. You are spending time with them, the most precious thing you have, and you are planting seeds that will pay off later in life. And you are keeping the gold in the family.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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